Heavy disclaimers needed:
First, I'm saying "downplay," not eliminate. This post is partially in response to Dan Edelen's post yesterday, which was partly inspired by a previous post here and its ensuing comments. As such, what I'm referring to here is the level of applicational/practical exhortations (ie. "you should") in a preached message, not whether Christians should apply their faith or what-have-you. Some commenters at Dan's blog are going off on "Well, of course orthopraxy is as important as orthodoxy! Duh!" as if anybody would even assert we only need head knowledge. It's no fun getting straw-manned.
But I am specifically talking about gospel-centered preaching, not holistic gospel-centered living.
Secondly, I feel as if I should share my applicational creds, so to speak. I'm going to be referring primarily to the content of my Sunday night Element messages at our worship service. On Monday nights, we have a community group that meets at a local market and the "study time" then is a guided, conversational spiritual discussion that is almost entirely application (by design). In addition, all of my messages do contain exhortations to live out faith in Christ, quite strong exhortations actually. I am specific in doing so, as I believe the proclamation of the gospel necessitates a call to repentance. Also, the teaching at the Element worship service does not exist in a vacuum. The teaching is in the context of a community that eats together, serves together, ministers to the inner city together, studies the Bible together, and takes care of each other together.
Thirdly, not all preaching is created equal. Congregations are like snowflakes; despite the new push by the multi-site gurus to adopt plug-and-play systems, no two congregations are alike. So the personality of proclamational preaching can and should be different from community to community, and from preacher to preacher.
I may well have to clarify more in the comments, but here are several reasons why I personally downplay the applicational angle in my messages:
1. I downplay application because the gospel is about Christ's finished work and our faith in it, not our works contributing to it.
My conviction is that when we focus too heavily on our works, Christ's finished work appears less valuable and the hearers may leave more with a sense of having to perform than with the satisfaction of knowing they don't have to.
2. I downplay application because application has predominated the evangelical Church's message for decades and we are not better off for it.
From the Pharisaical legalism of the traditionalist/fundamentalist church to the therapeutic legalism of the seeker-driven movement, we have been inundated with homework for a very long time. Consequently we are collectively unfamiliar with the Gospel. And if you're following the data, Christians are less biblically literate and more inwardly focused than ever before. Years and years of "up-playing" application has not created a vast movement of church communities radically devoted to discipleship to Jesus.
3. I downplay application because people basically know what they should be doing.
I say this in direct disagreement to something Dan said in the comments here and that has been reiterated in the thread at his place. I just don’t buy at all the notion that people don’t know what to do. Apart from decades of “thou shalt” sermons, even the immature Christian knows the golden rule and other basics of obedience.
This is also in direct rebellion against the Osteen-esque approach to preaching. Basically, Osteen and his homiletical compatriots argue that people already know they're sinners and know they've done things wrong, so why beat them up about it? Why not tell them what to do now instead?
I believe the opposite. I believe our flesh cries out for works, we are wired to worship, and we want to earn salvation, so we know what deeds are good deeds. And we need to be helped with specific advice in specific situations and we need to be reminded to do good, but our most pressing need is to be challenged on that which we forget most easily, which is not more tips for a successful life, but that we are sinners who need grace to have life in the first place. Read some Bonhoeffer on the constant need to remind each other of the gospel.
We all know what good works look like. We just don’t want to do them. And that is a spiritual problem exhortations to good behavior cannot solve. The clearly proclaimed gospel is God's prescription for breaking a hardened heart.
4. Downplaying application places trust in the Holy Spirit to produce fruit.
Living out the gospel, applying it to our daily life in practical ways, is not part of the gospel. It is the fruit of the gospel, the fruit the Spirit produces in those who have been born again. When we spend an inordinate amount of time in a message compelling listeners to "do stuff," we begin to distrust the Spirit's promise to produce good works out of the abundance of a changed heart and we begin to trust our inspirational advice and motivational challenges. When I downplay application I do not do so out of a conviction that Christians don't need to obey the spirit of the Law or follow Jesus, but out of a conviction that they can only do so by the power of the Holy Spirit anyway, and that those who have been justified will be sanctified. I trust that God uses the foolishness of preaching the foolish message of the cross to regenerate hearts and that He will be faithful to complete the good work He began in those hearts.
What I strive for (imperfectly, fallibly) in my teaching is to uphold Jesus and atoning work as all satisfying, all sufficient, all powerful, all encompassing, and call others to uphold it as such in their hearts. My belief is that when someone really loves Jesus and has been scandalized by God's grace, they will really follow Him into a life of scandalizing others.
Dan and others appear to contend that spending most preaching time calling for listeners to savor the work of Christ, cling to the cross, find satisfaction in Christ's work alone, and trust His grace for salvation does not offer real help because it doesn't give a "takeaway," it doesn't tell people what to do. I say it does tell people what to do: it tells them to savor, cling, find satisfaction, and trust. That is real help. And that's what I want people to takeaway. And my trust is that if people are actually doing that, because their affections have been transferred in repentance from self to Christ, their repentant hearts will bear the fruit of a living faith, by which I mean a faith that proves itself with works.
The natural question is, Does it work?
I bristle at the pragmatism of such a question, but it's a fair one, given the topic. I can offer two anecdotal evidences from my own ministry context.
First, I grew up in a church tradition and served in ministry in a church movement that "balanced" grace with works. But I have never been more motivated to follow Jesus and have not been more dedicated to "true religion" until my theological affections shifted to the focus I am advocating here.
Secondly, speaking for the Element community, I can say this: We are not a large group, but in doing the math, I can say that 90% of those who attend the worship service participate in our weekly community dinner, 60% participate in our weekly missional Bible study, and 40% participate in our organized monthly service projects. I think those are fairly good stats, indicative of relative health, comparatively speaking when you look at the average of most churches. In addition, I would point you to this case study of our community to see just what the "takeaway" is for our attendees.
In any event, in my mind, this isn't about "what works." It's about what the Bible teaches and about who I trust.
And when some say that the problem with gospel-centered churches is that they don't talk about works enough, I celebrate and pray for more churches with that "problem."
Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
-- 1 Corinthians 9:16
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
-- 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6